Drop most people in a desert and they'll see sand, maybe some plants or insects, and not much else. Jack Conrad '99 sees the bones of long-dead animals. "I've always been passionate about studying paleontology" says the young scientist, who went straight from Drury to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he works with Paul Sereno, Ph.D., one of the world's most famous (and respected) fossil hunters.
In a 101-day trip to the Sahara in 2000, Conrad helped uncover scores of important fossils. "We discovered 10 new species of dinosaur, four new crocodiles, and several other new reptile species. Additionally, we collected parts of eight previously known dinosaurs (including Nigersaurus), and the so-called 'supercroc' Sarcosuchus."
Finding fossils was only part of the adventure. "Niger has long been a nation of civil strife," Conrad notes. "When we visited the country in the summer and autumn of 2000, the country had been experiencing a period of relative quiet for some time. However, not all factions within the country were considered 'at peace' and while in the desert we were robbed by bandits. The six men simply walked into camp after dark one night, armed with machine guns, fired a couple of shots into the air and demanded all of the money and the satellite phone. After holding us for about two hours they popped the tires on our Land Rovers and left in their own vehicles." Applying patch after patch to the punctured tires, the team took two days to reach the closest town, a drive that usually took 10 hours.
Even as he roams the planet, Conrad remembers what he learned at Drury. "The biology department provided challenges and opportunities for me that I know would not have been available at larger schools. When they realized that there were courses that I needed to take, but which were not available, they worked with me to make them available, even to the point of creating new classes with me as the only student. This served to nurture my interest and drove me to work harder. It is this work ethic that stays with me today and helped me through the harder days in Africa."
As an undergraduate, Conrad helped catalogue and maintain specimens in Drury's collection. Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that his most exciting discovery so far was made in the vaults of the Field Museum in Chicago.
"My current research encompasses three groups of terrestrial vertebrates," says Conrad. "I am particularly interested in the anatomy of the Chinese Crocodile Lizard, Shinisaurus crocodilurus. This endangered species is known only from a single mountain range in Kwangsi Province of southern China." Conrad had borrowed one of the few known specimens from the University of Florida for his research, and like other scientists before him, was having trouble tracing the lizard's evolution. "All of the potential closest living relatives of Shinisaurus diverged from its lineage more than 70 million years ago. Thus, we really have had no 'family photos' to help us understand what to look for when searching for the evolutionary history of this lizard since the time of the dinosaurs."
About a year ago, during a routine visit with Sereno and another scientist to examine some fossils at the Field Museum, Conrad found a family photo. "I stood nearby becoming very excited about a much smaller fossil. As I looked at the nearly complete skeleton of the 44 cm lizard, I was forced to keep rubbing my eyes. This animal was nearly indistinguishable from Shinisaurus whom I had come to know very well." With this specimen, Conrad hopes to be the first to analyze the entire family that includes these lizards.
As his career takes off, Conrad stays in touch with Drury. In 2002 he gave a talk as part of the Origins Convocation series, sharing fascinating and funny stories of life in the Sahara, and showing what happens when Drury students walk through the doors that open for them. You can listen to the talk online at origins.drury.edu.